While hummus, falafel, and even shawarma are known around the globe, the ultimate Israeli street food—sabich—remains one of the country’s best-kept secrets.
Sabich is a pita stuffed with fried eggplant, hard-boiled eggs (traditionally haminados, which are the brown eggs from Sephardi-style cholent), hummus, tahini, and vegetable salad, while some versions contain boiled-potatoes as well. Pickled cucumbers, chopped parsley, and onions seasoned with purple sumac are usually added, as well as a Yemenite hot sauce called skhug, and amba—a thick yellow sauce containing pickled mangoes, fenugreek, and turmeric.
Making sabich sounds simple enough, but preparing it just right is an art form that few truly master. And the truest master of this culinary art is Oved Daniel, Israel’s most revered sabich-maker, who declares without false modesty that he is the Diego Armando Maradona of sabich. For 27 years, Oved—like Maradona, he’s generally referred to by one name—has been dominating Israel’s sabich scene from his little corner on Sirkin Street in Givatayim, a small city bordering Tel Aviv. During that time, his establishment has become an institution that customers flock to from all over the country. But now, the man who is as much a legend in the world of sabich as Maradona is on the soccer field has granted a highly coveted franchise to two young men, Maor Ben-Tov and Aviv Shary, who this month opened the very first branch of Oved’s Sabich in Tel Aviv proper.
Growing up in Givatayim and being weaned on Oved’s Sabich, Ben-Tov and Shary always wanted to open a branch of their favorite street-food stand. After studying at Tadmor School of Culinary Arts and Hotel Management in Herzliya, working at several restaurants, and pestering Oved about it for no less than three years, their dream finally came true. On the first Friday of November—following a grueling two-month apprenticeship at Oved’s original stand—Ben-Tov and Shary opened their place on Karlebach Street. On the back of their black employee uniforms they have printed Oved’s slogan that shamelessly advertises “the best mana in the universe.” Mana in Hebrew means portion, dose, or serving, and the word is used in reference to a pita-sandwich, as well as when talking about heroin—which tells you how Israelis think about sabich.
“People come to eat here from all over the world, and many want to open a branch in the States,” Oved boasted. “And what do I tell them? That it can’t be done! You can’t find the right ingredients in America, and you can’t import them without jeopardizing the quality. If opening a branch in Israel is hard, opening one in America is virtually impossible.” Even inside Israel, it turns out, it’s not easy to open a sabich stand; as in soccer, not everybody roots for the same team.
As opposed to hummus or falafel—Arabic dishes adopted by Israelis and exported around the world—sabich is a local concoction. The core ingredients can be found in the traditional Shabbat-breakfast of Iraqi Jews, but the idea of putting them into a pita and eating them as a sandwich is 100 percent Israeli. This shouldn’t be surprising, since Israelis consume everything in a pita, from schnitzel to Nutella. Nevertheless, the credit for this ingenious development is usually given to one Sabich Halabi, an Iraqi immigrant who opened what is believed to be the first sabich stand in Ramat Gan in 1961. Though Oved claims (perhaps jokingly) that the name is an acronym for the Hebrew words for salad-egg-more-eggplant, others believe it was named after Halabi, or at least stems from the Arabic word sabach, meaning morning.
Today sabich is popular all over Israel, although it’s more widespread in the Tel Aviv area, especially in Ramat Gan and Givatayim, to the east of the city. And in recent years, sabich has become so popular that some local gourmet chefs have created their personal upscale version of it, and many cafés in Tel Aviv serve a sabich-inspired sandwich, placing the eggplant and egg inside whole wheat or rye bread. But Oved would never do such a thing.
Just as people make pilgrimages to the “Soup Nazi” in New York for more than the quality of his soup, Oved’s lasting popularity and ever-growing cult status isn’t due solely to his tasty sabich or even the terms he coins, but to the way he talks to his customers and the entertaining, albeit ridiculous, show he puts on. Customers who know the language and rules for ordering feel right at home, but unsure stutters might get disapproving glances from Oved’s employees or other customers, especially if one’s ignorance is holding up the line. The proprietor loves discussing “the field of sabich” and never pardons his puns. In fact, he has basically invented his own language, composed of expressions from the soccer-world mixed with his very-own “sabich verbs,” like “onionize” or “saladize.” Oved doesn’t ask if you want more eggplant—he’ll ask whether he should “eggplantize” you. If the answer is affirmative, you will then have to determine which of the six degrees of eggplantization you would be interested in: light, medium, heavy, massive, aggressive, or militant. When he asks what the score is at the derby (a soccer game between two local rivals), he’s actually asking how much amba and skhug you want: Since Maccabi’s team color is yellow, it represents the amba—an Iraqi version of Indian mango-chutney—while the red team, Ha-Poel, symbolizes the hot-sauce. If you answer “2-0 for Ha-Poel,” that means you want two teaspoons of hot sauce and no amba. (No amba is considered a no-no, but note: Amba is something you sweat out; you won’t be able to go on a date for at least three days after consuming it.)
For Oved, who grew up playing soccer, the game is a metaphor for life, and for sabich: “I used to be a soccer player and I could have been a great one,” he said. “Making great sabich requires the same characteristics as being a great soccer player: understanding of the game, control, accuracy and sharpness. The only football player that ever had all four attributes is Maradona, and I have them in the field of sabich.”
The question is, do Ben-Tov and Shary have them? “I gave them all the instructions and guidance they need. If they succeed in getting the flavor even 80 percent right, that’s good enough,” said Oved with typical modesty. Still, many find the fact that Oved’s name is now attached to a place other than his own snack-bar quite shocking, if not outright blasphemous, but you can’t blame a man for keeping his word. “I promised,” is Oved’s rationale for his surprising business expansion. “I know their families and I have known them since they were kids. They talked about opening a branch for years and I always told them, if you’re serious and find a place, we’ll do it. They proved that they were serious, so I had to keep my promise.”
A visit to Oved’s new branch four days after the opening revealed obvious similarities to the original store in Givatayim, like steamed pitas (Oved’s method of keeping them warm and soft) and young vendors attempting the classic Oved lingo rather nervously. “Before we opened I was worried sick,” said Ben-Tov, 23, regarding the immense pressure of filling Oved’s shoes. “I felt pains in my chest and couldn’t sleep. But now I’m not nervous anymore. Oved himself came by and was happy, so I’m more relaxed now. His feedback obviously is the most important to us. Our goal is to make Oved proud.”
Some of the customers I met at the new branch were students from the nearby Ironi Alef high school, who seemed happy with the product. Customers who came to compare new-Oved with original-Oved were less impressed. “The arrangement inside the pita isn’t very good,” complained Aya Cohen from Givatayim. “My mana wasn’t harmonious, all the eggs were at the bottom. Also, the eggplant was too seedy and too dry. All in all, it wasn’t bad but Oved needs to come over for some fine-tuning.”
Sefi Zisling from Tel Aviv was more optimistic: “I’m not flying at the moment like after eating at Oved’s, but it was nice. There’s room for improvement and I think it’s too early to tell. These guys need to gain confidence, and obviously that takes time. People like eating at Oved’s because he creates a certain kind of atmosphere. He makes you feel like he’s giving you love inside a pita. That’s what they need to learn.”
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